Journal logo

Script Writing 101

by david layzelle about a year ago in advice

Following Conventions #1

Script Writing 101
Tip 17.  Try and Roll Your Film up neatly

Okay, we now have a log line, and we are ready to start getting actual words down on paper (metaphorically) and craft our script. We haven’t started on our overview yet, because this will grow as our story develops.

So, we kinda know what we are going to write about, we’ve made some notes, and written some loose dialogue and situations in word, we’ve done a mind map, created some characters and fleshed them out a bit in MS Word, and now we are ready to start actually creating a script.

Many people—just look at the script writing forums—get too stuck in doing their background work, and are in danger of never starting to get anything meaningful down. Many people lack the fundamental story writing skills to start, and are unsure how to progress once you have started. Some may think me premature in starting before I have everything set in my mind, but I’m a good writer—I run a successful, professional writing agency for a day job—and I’m of the view that writing something is way better than writing nothing, so just start writing.

Creating a script is unlike any other type of writing. It is formatted in a specific way, and can only really be done by using specialist software. That said, there are plenty of examples of this bespoke software—including some freeware—out there, so you don’t have to pay dollars to get started. However, it has to be said that if your formatting is off—even slightly—those agents, producers, and directors whose attention you crave will simply disregard your script, regardless of how good it may be, and tell you to go away and format it properly. In fact, the formatting is so well defined that professionals can spot incorrect formatting a mile off.

While you can get some good free programs, the real industry standard software is called Final Draft, and isn’t cheap, but it is worth spending money on, not only because of its superior formatting abilities, but also because it comes fitted with some great tools to help you create something that Hollywood expects to see.

Everything that I describe about the script from now on will reference Final Draft, since it is my tool of choice, though almost every software program uses the same conventions.

Title Page. Your script should tell everyone straight away what the title of your script is, who wrote it, and their contact details, as in address, and email. If you think your title sounds a bit rubbish, pick something better; Pulp Fiction was originally entitled “Black Mask”, and Casablanca almost ended up as “Everyone Comes to Rick’s” had someone not stepped in. There are plenty of other examples too—have fun. If you have a good title, let’s step into screen writing.

SCENE HEADING. This simple line tells the director—who is essentially the one that you are writing for—specifics about the scene. It will say whether it is inside or out, whether it is day or night, and the general location. It takes the form:


So, we know that it is internal, that it is in a warehouse, and that it’s the day. An alternative might be:


This is external, in a parking lot, and at night.

The only positional alternatives are INT (Internal) or EXT (external), DAY or NIGHT, never AFTERNOON, or DUSK or anything else. The position can be fluid, but you should only ever use those conventions. This is all the director wants to know about the scene.

ACTION. The action is written text that goes to tell us more about the scene, the people in it, and any other information that enhances it. Here, even though you might have stated that it is DAY in the scene heading, you might say something like:

It is late afternoon. Johnny is standing, gazing into the mass of diamonds that fill the attaché case.

Now we know much more about the scene. It’s afternoon, Johnny is there, and he has a case of diamonds. We could go on much more than that; action parts are designed to tell the director what is happening, and what you want them to show to tell your story. The director may want to dress Johnny in a particular way, or have certain music playing, but unless it is essential to the plot, you shouldn’t go into that detail.

You can tell the director what kind of age Johnny is, and also capitalise his name the first time that he is mentioned. You can state things that take the story forward, and other factors that might be essential. So, our scene heading and action sequence could become:


It is late afternoon. JOHHNY (30s) is standing gazing into a mass of diamonds that fill an attaché case. There is the bulge of a gun beneath his jacket.

There is the sound of a car approaching. Johnny snaps the case shut, pulls the gun from his shoulder holster and checks that there is a round in the chamber.

Now we know much more about Johnny, but still give the director plenty of scope to put their own mark on it. By the way, none of this should be italicised… I’m only doing it to differentiate from my writing.

The other rule is, keep it succinct; scripts run at about a page being a minute of screen time, so don’t spend pages describing things that you don’t need to—it’s a script, not a book!!!!!

I’m going to leave it here for the moment, as we have lots to chat about with following conventions with characters, dialogue, and other essential parts, so check back soon.

david layzelle
david layzelle
Read next: Why Denny's Is the Perfect Starter Job for a Cook
david layzelle

Scriptwriter, entrepreneur, philosopher, rocket scientist...what's not to like?

See all posts by david layzelle